The man who recalls, and records, the glory of old-time baseball

1929 athletics

There are few alive today who remember baseball’s first golden era, that of the 1920s and ‘30s, when greats such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Charlie Gehringer, Mel Ott, Carl Hubbell, Jim Bottomley, Rogers Hornsby, Ted Lyons, Pie Traynor and the Waner brothers, to name but a few, plied their trade on diamonds in a handful of major league cities.

Obviously, the length of time that has elapsed is a major reason – Babe Ruth, for one, retired more than 80 years ago – but there’s also the fact that one would had to have been not only a baseball fan, but located in fewer than a dozen cities to have regularly witnessed the slugging prowess of a Foxx or Ruth or the pitching wizardry of a Grove or Hubbell.

In an era before television, sports highlight shows and big-time commercial endorsements, the only way most Americans ever got to see professional athletes in action was through a trip to the park.

Given that there were only 16 major league teams spread among just 10 cities, ranging from Boston and New York in the east to Chicago and St. Louis in the west, many fans were lucky to see more than a game or two in person, if that.

Given the mastery with which Roger Angell has written about baseball over the decades, it’s hardly surprising that he is among the few still around who saw some of baseball’s first real superstars in person.

Roger Angell

Roger Angell

Born in 1920, he began going to games in New York in the late 1920s, and regularly attended both New York Yankees and New York Giants games. The Yankees featured not only Ruth and Gehrig, but also Tony Lazzeri, Bill Dickey, Earle Combs, Red Ruffing, Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock and Lefty Gomez, while the Giants had, in addition to Ott and Hubbell, Bill Terry, Travis Jackson, Bob O’Farrell, Freddie Lindstrom and Freddie Fitzsimmons.

The two teams regularly won or contended for their respective pennants, which meant, in the days before baseball watered its product down with seemingly endless rounds of playoffs, that they would often go on the World Series.

Angell, who today is 95, wrote about his early-baseball memories in his 2006 work Let Me Finish:

My father began taking me and my four-years-older sister to games at some point in the latter twenties, but no first-ever view of Babe Ruth or of the grass barn of the Polo Grounds remains in mind. We must have attended with some regularity, because I’m sure I saw the Babe and Lou Gehrig hit back-to-back home runs on more than one occasion. Mel Ott’s stumpy, cow-tail swing is still before me, and so are Gehrig’s thick calves and Ruth’s debutante ankles. Baseball caps were different back then: smaller and flatter than today’s constructions – more like the workmen’s caps that one saw on every street. Some of the visiting players – the Cardinals, for instance – wore their caps cheerfully askew or tipped back on their heads, but never the Yankees. Gloves were much smaller, too, and outfielders left theirs on the grass, in the shallow parts of the field, when their side came in to bat; I wondered why a batted ball wouldn’t strike them on the fly or on the bounce someday, but it never happened.

Angell has written a number of highly regarded baseball books over the years, including Late Innings, Game Time, Season Ticket and The Summer Game, but for all the magnificence of those, it’s tough to beat the above for capturing the beauty of baseball’s early years.

“… Ott’s stumpy cow-tailed swing …” “ … Ruth’s debutante ankles …”  And anyone who recalls the history of the game and the 1930s Gashouse Gang has little trouble imagining the rollicking Cardinals of Hornsby, Pepper Martin, Frankie Frisch, Dizzy Dean, Dazzy Vance, Joe Medwick and Leo Durocher wearing their caps askew or pushed back, or of the Yankees of Ruth, Gehrig, et al declining to do so.

His ability to recall old-time players with names seemingly gleaned from the best of Dickens is a treat in and of itself: Eppa Rixey, Goose Goslin, Firpo Marberry, Jack Rothrock, Eldon Auker, Luke Appling, Mule Haas, Adolfo Luque, Paul Derringer, Heinie Manush , Van Lingo Mungo – all of whom played six, seven or eight decades ago.

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America recognized Angell in 2014 when they honored him with the J. G. Taylor Spink Award, the highest award given by the entity.

Angell became the first, and so far only, non-BBWAA member to be so honored since the award’s inception in 1962.

Angell has written on a variety of topics besides baseball with equal aplomb, but there’s something about his ability to cull out the quaint and curious, his understanding of the game and his imminently gifted writing style that makes his baseball prose sparkle.

(Top: Team photo of world champion 1929 Philadelphia Athletics.)

Easily offended Ivy Leaguers look to dumb down curriculum

books

One does so tire of college elites bleating about being “oppressed” by administrators’ failure to be “inclusive” when crafting courses.

Among recent squawking is that from special snowflakes at Yale, who have launched a petition calling on the Ivy League school’s English department to abolish a core course requirement to study canonical writers, including Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton, stating “it is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors,” according to The Guardian.

It would appear that Yale English students, despite being an undoubtedly bright bunch, aren’t capable of picking up the works of, say, Zora Neale Hurston, Gabriel García Márquez, Salman Rushdie, Amy Tan, Edith Wharton or Richard Wright on their own.

Yale requires English majors to spend two semesters studying a selection of authors it labels “major English poets”: Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and John Donne in the fall; John Milton, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, and TS Eliot “or another modern poet” in the spring. (Presumably the other modern poet could be a non-white, non-male writer, but that wouldn’t fit the agenda of the easily aggrieved.)

Its intention, the university says, “is to provide all students with a generous introduction to the abiding formal and thematic concerns of the English literary tradition.” The poems the students read, it adds, “take up questions and problems that resonate throughout the whole of English literature: the status of vernacular language, the moral promise and perils of fiction, the relationships between men and women, the nature of heroism, the riches of tradition and the yearning to make something new.”

To combat this pernicious patriarchal authoritarianism Yale students have launched a petition calling on the institution to “decolonize” the course.

“They want the university to abolish the major English poets requirement, and to refocus the course’s pre-1800/1900 requirements “to deliberately include literatures relating to gender, race, sexuality, ableism, and ethnicity,” according to The Guardian.

The petition says that “a year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity,” and that the course “creates a culture that is especially hostile to students of color.”

Actually, Yale has a wide variety of English courses that focus specifically on women and people of color, along with some that touch on queer issues.

These include English 10: Jane Austen; English 239: Women Writers from the Restoration to Romanticism; English 291: The American Novel Since 1945, which includes works by Wright, Flannery O’Connor, Patricia Highsmith, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison and Alison Bechdel; English 292: Imagining Sexual Politics, 1960s to the Present, which involves a historical survey of “fiction, poetry drama and creative nonfiction that have shaped and responded to feminist, queer and transgender thought since the start of second-wave feminism”; English 293: Race and Gender in America; English 306: American Artists and the African American Book; English 313: Poetry and Political Sensibility; English 326: The Spectacle of Disability, which examines how people with disabilities are treated in US literature and culture; English 334: Postcolonial World Literature, 1945-present; English 352: Asian American Literature; English 445: Ralph Ellison in Context; English 446: Virginia Woolf; and English 945: Black Literature and US Liberalism.

But, of course, students would have to enroll in additional courses beyond the basic two currently required to partake in the above. It would appear the “persecuted” are trying to change the school’s approach to teaching English rather than simply signing up for an additional class or two.

One student went so far as to write in the Yale Daily News that the school’s English department “actively contributes to the erasure of history” by having two of its foundational courses in English focus on “canonical works that actively oppress and marginalize non-white, non-male, trans and queer people.”

I’ve read some of the above major English poets and fail to see how their works create “a culture that is especially hostile to students of color.” But, being a middle class white male, I suppose I couldn’t possibly understand what’s offensive to a group of late teens and young twenty-somethings at one of the most select, politically correct universities in the world.

What’s more likely going on is that a collection of vocal Yale undergraduates have tired of being forced to read Milton, Chaucer, Shakespeare, et al. To be fair, these writers can be difficult to slog through, what with their penchant for archaic language and use of such tricky literary devices as allegories and soliloquies.

But instead of buckling down and becoming better readers and writers by understanding what the great English poets of the past had to say when they put pen to paper, they’d rather accuse the school of “harming students.”

I’ll say this for Yale English students: They may not be too resilient when it comes to holding up under the yoke of great literature, but they’ve got a bright future in the area of creative thinking.

Local schools: If it’s inconvenient, then it’s not worth doing

Helicopter-Parents

Summer reading lists have been around for eons, it would seem. Until this year, that is, at least in my neck of the woods.

When my girls, who are going into the 10th, ninth, ninth and seventh grades, finished school last May they told me they didn’t have any required summer reading. Seeing how each of them independently told me the same story, and there was no information about summer reading on their respective schools’ websites, I was forced to accept this as truth.

However, as each had been given reading lists since at least the third grade previously, I found the change perplexing.

I told them, though, that they would be reading at least one book that I would pick out for them. My girls have varying levels of interest in reading: One is an avid bookworm and is never without something to peruse; another is a social butterfly and, while an excellent writer, would rather do just about anything than sit down and read.

The four start school tomorrow and over the summer between them managed to read 18 books. This, however, is not broken down evenly. One of my twins read nine books, including The Scarlet Letter, which I picked out for her. The youngest read six books, including Little Women, which was my choice. The oldest read two books – All Things Bright and Beautiful and Animal Farm – the first of which I chose because of her love of animals, and the second she chose because she thought it was about a farm (I didn’t disabuse her of that notion when she showed it to me initally). My other twin managed to get through one book, To Kill a Mockingbird, which I chose for her.

Obviously I would have preferred for the latter two to have spent more time reading and less time playing on their cell phones, but they only live with me part of the time so I’m glad they accomplished what they did.

What I found rather discouraging was the reason their schools didn’t assign reading lists, which I learned only this past weekend.

My three older girls were told at the end of last year that students weren’t being assigned summer reading “because kids won’t do it.” This was verified by another student who attends a different area school.

As an aside, my children are fortunate enough to attend classes in one of the best public school districts in South Carolina.

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Carnegie Libraries: the bequest that continues to benefit

Lauren camp june 2015 009

Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie provided funding for the construction of nearly 1,700 public libraries across the United States between 1886 and 1923.

Reading and libraries played a key role in Carnegie’s life, particularly during his childhood in Scotland and his teenage years in Pennsylvania. While working as telegraph operator for the Pittsburgh office of the Ohio Telegraph Co. beginning at just age 16, Carnegie borrowed books from Col. James Anderson, who opened his personal library of 400 volumes to working boys each Saturday night.

Carnegie, a self-made man, believed in giving to those who were interested in helping themselves.

After he became one of the richest men in America, he began providing funding for libraries, initially in his native Scotland, later in his adopted state of Pennsylvania, then across the nation and other parts of the world.

All Carnegie libraries were built according to a formula that required financial commitments from the towns which received donations. Carnegie required recipients to:

  • Demonstrate the need for a public library;
  • Provide the building site;
  • Annually provide 10 percent of the cost of the library’s construction to support its operation; and,
  • Provide free service to all.

In areas where segregation was the de facto rule, Carnegie often had separate libraries built for minorities.

The Carnegie Library shown above is in Union, SC. It was built in 1905 at a cost of $10,000 and is one of 14 libraries Carnegie libraries funded in South Carolina.

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Remebering Julia Peterkin, who brought Gullah to the masses

Julia_Peterkin

My first brush with author Julia Peterkin didn’t come in a literature class, book club or library.

I happened across her wholly by chance a few years back while wandering the South Carolina back country. I was in rural Calhoun County, traveling along seemingly endless miles of blacktop country roads when I came across a picturesque antebellum church surrounded by fields of cotton.

I stopped at St. Matthews Parish Episcopal Church, a structure that dates to the 1850s and, as I later learned, still has a slave balcony, and ambled about. Across the road was a small family cemetery with no more than four dozen graves. As I glanced at each, I came across Peterkin’s marker.

I can’t remember now how I realized that there was something significant about Julia Peterkin, but perhaps that’s not surprising. She had largely slipped from literary consciousness less 75 years after becoming the first Southern writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

In retrospect, Peterkin’s life likely had far more downs than ups, a sad testament given her short-lived but important literary efforts.

Born Julia Mood into a wealthy family in Laurens County, SC, south of Greenville, her mother died before she was two. When her father remarried, Julia was sent to live with her paternal grandparents while her two older sisters remained with her father and his new wife.

Her views on race were likely conflicted by the fact that her grandfather’s ancestors had opposed slavery on religious grounds and had illegally taught slaves to read, while her grandmother was descended from a long line of wealthy slave holders, according to Susan Millar Williams.

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Amateur historian uncovers additonal 3,000 Civil War dead

unknown confederate dead photo

Historians in recent years have revised the number of dead connected to the American Civil War significantly upward, from 620,000 to as many as 850,000. That increase is based in part on the work of J. David Hacker of Binghamton University SUNY, who used demographic methods and sophisticated statistical software to study digitized US census records from 1850 to 1880.

Coming up with actual names to go with this increase is significantly more difficult.

However, one South Carolinian, through years of hard work, has given names to many Confederate soldiers whose deaths during the 1861-65 conflict were never officially documented.

Herbert “Bing” Chambers has uncovered the identities of approximately 3,000 South Carolina soldiers who lost their lives during the War Between the States but were never officially recorded.

Chambers’ efforts have increased the state’s losses during the war to nearly 22,000.

To put that in perspective, that figure is more than 17 percent higher than the 17,682 figure listed in the Official Records of the War of Rebellion and some 16 percent higher than the 18,666 number listed in Randolph W. Kirkland Jr.’s 1995 work, Broken Fortunes: South Carolina Soldiers, Sailors, and Citizens Who Died in the Service of Their Country and State in the War for Southern Independence, 1861-1865.

Chambers actually began his efforts shortly after Kirkland’s work was released when he learned that the latter, who created his book by combining several different existing lists of South Carolina Confederate dead, had failed to review the Compiled Service Records when creating Broken Fortunes.

The Compiled Service Records for Civil War soldiers were made by the US Record and Pension Office in the War Department, beginning in 1890 for Union soldiers and 1903 for Confederate soldiers.

Card abstracts for Southern soldiers were made from original muster rolls, returns, rosters, payrolls, appointment books, hospital registers, Union prison registers and rolls, parole rolls, and inspection reports. Service records may provide rank, unit, date of enlistment, length of service, age, place of birth and date of death.

Over the ensuing 18 years, Chambers scoured hundreds of rolls of microfilm, traveled to countless libraries, archives and courthouses across South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina, and meandered through old cemeteries across all three states seeking out old headstones marking the resting place of otherwise unheralded soldiers.

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Philanthropist donates $300 million in works to Princeton

william scheide scheide library

A vast array of rare books, manuscripts and documents, including several exquisite 15th century bibles, first folios of Shakespeare’s works and an original copy of the US Declaration of Independence, have been bequeathed to Princeton University.

The collection, valued at around $300 million, was given to the university by William H. Scheide, who died last fall at age 100. Scheide had moved the collection to Princeton in the late 1950s from his home in Titusville, Penn., where it had been amassed over three generations, creating the Scheide Library at Princeton in the process.

The bibles include a Gutenberg Bible printed in 1455 and described as exceedingly rare and beautifully illuminated.

The collection also contains Shakespeare’s first, second, third and fourth folios, according to The Guardian.

“Shakespeare’s first folio, for example, was the first book of plays published in a format generally reserved for literature,” the publication reported. “The first folio is sometimes called ‘incomparably the most important work in the English language,’ according to Folger Shakespeare Library.”

Other items in the collection include a handwritten speech about slavery by Abraham Lincoln, a 1493 letter from Christopher Columbus to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain about his discovery of the New World, musical sketchbooks and manuscripts of Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and Wagner, as well as all 47 volumes of music produced by Bach.

Scheide’s bibles – the first four printed editions of the Bible – are the jewels of the collection.

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